My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Siri helpIn the immortal words of Judith Viorst’s Alexander, I had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

While traveling on the busy freeway I asked Siri for directions.  She said, “I do not know ‘get that little cat’.”

When I tried and tried again she consistently answered,  “You’re welcome.”

Determined to be more helpful than Sassy Siri, I vowed to bring cheer to two depressed acquaintances.  So, I mailed them rough  dummies of my  children’s picture book manuscripts, because my depressed, young protagonist makes me laugh.

When I called to see if they got my dummies, one said, “What do you want me to do with these?”

Seeking a more positive review, I called the other. She said, “You should meet my neighbor–she’s a good writer.” Then for the next agonizing hour and a half she recited every one of her neighbor’s poems. By then, I was depressed.

To cheer myself up, I visited my grandkids. One pointed to the back of my knee, “What awe those bwoo wines on you-a wegs, Gwamma?” (Translation: “What are those blue lines on your legs, Gramma?”)

My husband teased, “Connected, they’d make a tattooed map of Argentina.”

Later that evening, I had the auspicious opportunity of having my chapter book manuscript critiqued by a real live published writer. I beamed as I handed her draft #658. Until her face contorted. I checked the table for the sour lemon. Seems she’s averse to first person present tense. She left the table abruptly. I think to go vomit.

On the drive home, I was tempted to pout. But then Charlie Brown, Rodney Dangerfield, and  Alexander from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day sat on my shoulders and made fun of me. (I must have been delirious. Instead of angels and devils, I got round-headed whiners. ) 

Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown said he wouldn’t have gotten a cartoon column if Lucy let him kick the ball.

Rodney Dangerfield said he wouldn’t have had a schtick if he had gotten any respect.

And Judith Viorst’s Alexander said his story wouldn’t have been as funny if his teacher loved his invisible castle.

They all told me to embrace awkward and to look for the funny in tattooed maps of Argentina. Then they asked me what I learned from my terrible horrible no good very bad day. I had to pray the Litany of Humility Prayer to see.

#1: Like Charlie Brown, I’ll keep trying–even when success seems improbable. But, where Siri’s concerned, I now bring a hard-copy map in case she takes me to that little cat. And I’m learning to enunciate my words.

#2: I don’t send depressed people my writing. It’d be embarrassing if my manuscript was left on a ledge after a jump. But, I do listen and learn. Like Rodney Dangerfield, I’m ready for the hecklers. In fact, I savor hecklers, because frustration generates the funniest writing material.

#3: I now wear pants (mostly). The South American Department of Tourism is disappointed, but they’ll get over it.

#4: I edited my invisible castle/manuscript rather than succumb to an overwhelming desire to move to Australia (an Alexander reference). I did some research and learned that no one is passionate one way or the other about past tense. But many people have visceral, negative emotions about first person present tense. So, I revised my chapter book manuscript to incorporate the less risky formula. (Because I’m a coward.)

My writers’ group thanked me for this. (Except for one comrade who came back from the Illinois conference declaring that present tense is all the rage. That was after I’d changed my entire 8,341 word manuscript to past tense. He coerced me off the ledge by conceding that I could wait to be adventurous–for when I don’t need critique advice–which will be–um–never.)

#5: Imperfect, insecure protagonists are funnier. My characters are more interesting because of my daily frustrations.

If you got stuck on this blog because Siri won’t give you directions or because you Googled giant Argentina tattoo, you might be having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Celebrate! Then write about it. That’s how Charlie, Rodney, and Alexander got their start.

Dummy Workshop for Smarties

EliseHyldenAre you a picture book author or author/illustrator who would like to wow an agent or editor by improving the rhythm, pacing, and editing of your manuscript?

You’re in luck! Minnesota illustrator, Elise Parsley, is presenting a workshop just for you:
Picture Book, Dummy Book, How to Hook (an agent)!

A dummy will help you flesh out your characters and pace your story. I created this dummy for my own use with the help of iclipart. Incidentally, you might learn, as I did, that your material is better suited for an older audience.

Whether you are an illustrator or artistically challenged, like me, this workshop will be beneficial for you. Elise will  show  you the characteristics and usefulness of a picture book dummy and the basics of a PB query letter. The  experience may also help you discern whether your material is truly suitable for and marketable in the picture book genre.

Bring a copy of your picture book manuscript, pen, scissors, and be prepared to make some edits!

About Elise: She studied drawing and creative writing at Minnesota State University in Moorhead, MN. She has been actively researching and creating picture books and dummies since graduating in 2011. Five pieces of Elise’s spot art were featured in the March/April 2013 issue of the SCBWI Bulletin. She will share invaluable feedback she’s received from editors and agents on her way to publication.

SCBWIBULLETINPg26-27Picture Book, Dummy Book, How to Hook (an agent)!  is a MN SCBWI-sponsored event.
Elise looks forward to seeing you Saturday, September 21, 1 – 5 p.m. at the Maplewood Ramsey County Library, Community Meeting Room, 3025 Southlawn Drive, Maplewood, MN, 55109.

SCBWI Members: $25, Non-members $35.

Room For More

I love having children in our home. Our children and grandchildren bless us abundantly, but there will always be room in my heart for more.  Therein lies my motivation to author picture books. I can write more children into the world and introduce them to our grandchildren.  I can name, incorporate family traits and idiosyncrasies, and hit the backspace when they get too sassy or unmanageable.

The other morning I awoke to a dream that my husband and I had adopted a little boy.  Before I was coherent I murmured to my husband, who was in the bathroom, out of earshot, “Thank you so much.  I LOVE him.”

Now I realize the boy I’d “adopted” is the protagonist in my latest picture book manuscript.  Like my own kids — the more I nurture him, the more I know and love him.

To add flesh to my picture book characters and story, I’ve made a dummy for each manuscript.  (A dummy is a 32-page mock book to assist in structuring a story.) Since I’m artistically-challenged, I use Microsoft Publisher to incorporate clipart.  This serves me well to create reader-friendly  stories for “test drives” with my grandchildren and others.

Unfortunately, (or fortunately — depending upon the day), there’s no clipart that truly depicts my family – even those adopted in my dreams.  Ironically, the clipart protagonist I chose (from has red hair.  No one in our immediate family has red hair. Perhaps I chose a red-head because I didn’t want anyone to recognize who he might be in real life.  Or, maybe I’m subconsiously fashioning him after a young Napolean Dynamite NapoleonDynamiteor my red-headed cousin that I haven’t seen since childhood: Bobby Bill.  Hmmm…come to think of it…

Just yesterday I tried changing the color of my protagonist’s skin and hair because I thought potential agents might be looking for a more exotic approach.  Then I realized how silly that was.  When the “real” illustrator gets ahold of my stories, the characters will look exactly as they are meant to look.  It’s like giving birth.  Initially, I won’t know who’ll come out, but I’ll trust the one/One fashioning them for life in the world.  After all, I already love my “children” before I behold their faces, because I’ve already held them in my heart.

Sometimes a character is really mini me (an older, female Napoleon Dynamite). One manuscript is about terminal tardiness.  The story line came to me after pulling on two locked doors minutes after closing time.  First, I stood at the post office door with a time-sensitive document, then at the optical office across town with old, worn contacts in my eyes.  All of the fruitless running made me late for a dinner date with my husband. I hated the feeling of disappointing him with my carelessness.

Interestingly, our daughter thinks the story’s about her brother, our oldest son.  (Sorry son – it’s in the genes.)

Our granddaughters point at the characters in a story and argue, “I’m her.”

“No, I’m her!”


“How ‘bout all of us be her?”

It’s fun to see the character(s) they most identify with – and to learn why. (Usually it’s whoever’s wearing pink.)

I’m excited by the opportunity to create new possibilities, relive lessons learned, investigate ones not learned, and ensure happy endings where they’re missing.  The best thing about writing children’s books?  The children we create can stay children forever.  And, they can live on — long after we’re gone — so our children’s children can enjoy them, too.